IImmediately after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Yang, a 22-year-old classical music student in Kyiv, called the Chinese Embassy in the city asking for help. He tried several times but the line was busy.
“I don’t know why the embassy didn’t tell us that war was going to break out when other countries had advised their citizens to leave a few days before,” he said. Yang then followed his university’s emergency protocols and took refuge in a bomb shelter. A few days later, an escape route began circulating among his friends. He decided to follow the instructions and run away on his own.
Nearly two weeks before Russia took action – described by Chinese media as “special military operations” – countries including the UK and Canada advised their nationals to leave Ukraine. But in the case of China, which had nearly 6,000 nationals in the country, it was not until the day after the outbreak of war that the embassy advised its citizens to leave.
“When they knew [the war was to break out], it was already too late to evacuate,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. Until war broke out, many top Chinese pundits and media outlets had insisted that the Western prediction of an invasion was “fake news”.
China said on Monday that most of its nationals had left Ukraine. At the annual press conference with Chinese and foreign journalists in Beijing on the same day, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told millions of his citizens abroad that the country “is always behind you” in responding to a question from the Xinhua News Agency. The response was then widely publicized in Chinese media.
However, while state media has praised the diplomatic mission for its work, its response since the war has also drawn widespread criticism from some Chinese students based in Ukraine, who have spent days trapped in bomb shelters. -bombs in a foreign country at war. They say slow advice and confusing messages from the embassy – including advising them to display a Chinese flag on their vehicles, then a day later telling them ‘not to display any identifying symbols’ – stood in contrast to the image of order and control that Beijing had tried to project. over the years.
“For a long time, Chinese state agencies as well as state-sponsored media have taken an opportunistic approach to use every event as an opportunity to advance propaganda goals,” said Ling Li, a political and legal expert. Chinese at the University of Vienna. .
“This is exactly what happened when the Embassy rescinded its previous advice after realizing how negatively an expressive pro-Russian stance was perceived by Ukrainians and the international community, which apparently did not at all was taken into account when she hastily issued her first opinion.”
On Tuesday, an embassy staff member told the Guardian to find other ways to contact the embassy for a response to this story, as its line was only for Chinese nationals based in Ukraine. But when asked which department can respond to media inquiries, he replied that the embassy does not have such a department. The embassy said last week that it began evacuating the first group of Chinese nationals late in the evening of February 28. And in an interview with the Beijing-based Global Times on the same day, an official explained the logistical challenge of withdrawing citizens as the war raged.
A difficult and lonely escape
Last Tuesday, an anxious Chinese student in Kyiv posted on social media a recording of her desperate plea to an embassy staff member, in which she was told to shelter in place or go upstairs alone. a train to Lviv. She was trolled by unsympathetic nationalists online before deleting the post.
Yang’s escape wasn’t easy either. At 7 a.m. on March 1, he followed the escape route and ventured into a Kiev train station. “The station was crowded with people desperately trying to leave,” he said. “Fortunately, I finally got on a train. On the platform, men saw their children and their wives. It was a scene I had only seen in movies. I will never forget him.”
He said he then spent 10 hours standing in a crowded train compartment. En route, he realized that he had escaped Kiev in such haste that he had left behind his two beloved cellos. Over the past five years, the instruments have accompanied him on tour in China and Ukraine. His computer was also in the air-raid shelter. He only takes a bag with his passport, some clothes and bank cards. His destination: Lviv in western Ukraine, then Poland.
Yang was lucky. On March 1, a Chinese national was shot and wounded while trying to flee eastern Ukraine, according to state media. A day earlier, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Beijing is “making every possible plan to help Chinese citizens in Ukraine leave the country.” On its official website and social media account, the embassy began posting several evacuation instructions and open letters, including one stating that the ambassador was still in Kyiv to help on the evening of February 26 – after the outbreak of war.
For Luo, 23, another Chinese student who wishes to remain anonymous, the official plan came too late. Having not heard from his embassy for days, Luo jumped on a motorbike to leave Kiev with his Iranian classmate as soon as the war broke out on February 24.
They first stopped at a mutual friend’s house in a small village to recharge their batteries and come up with a detailed plan after more than 24 hours on the road. Finally, on February 28, they arrive in Lviv and find a car to go to Medyka, in southeastern Poland, on the border with Ukraine.
But halfway to the Polish border, the traffic jam forces them to abandon the car. “So we decided to go to the border on foot,” Luo said. It was 3 p.m. when they started walking. They finally arrived at the border at 6 a.m. the next day.
At the border, they saw two long queues: one for Ukrainian nationals, mainly women, children and the elderly, and the other for foreigners, mainly Indians and North Africans, said Luo. A day later, on March 2, Luo and his classmate finally crossed the border, thanks to a announcement by Warsaw two days earlier which allowed Chinese nationals to enter Poland without a Schengen visa.
Yang and Luo are safe in Poland after their ordeal. The first two flights carrying evacuees landed in China on Saturday, according to state media. But Luo said he hoped to stay in Poland because tickets to China were “far too expensive”.
“I don’t understand. China gives hundreds of millions of dollars every year to developing countries, but they don’t financially help their citizens who have been forced to flee. [to] go home,” Luo said. “I never thought this would happen to me.”
Yang, who took a Covid acid test on Sunday as part of the pre-departure requirement, has paid for his ticket and is looking forward to returning home to southern China in the coming days. On Monday morning, he called his 70-year-old cello teacher, who decided to stay in Ukraine, to check on him.
“I said goodbye to him. I promised him that once the war was over, I would come back and sit in your class to finish my studies.